The Problem of Evil (pain, suffering) is a philosophical argument used by Atheists as an argument against the existence of God. It dates back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is widely regarded as the strongest argument in the Atheistic arsenal. Epicurus formulated the problem this way:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
There are a number of technical, philosophical ways to phrase it, but the gist of the issue is that we all know that pain and suffering and evil exist in the world, and we have to make an account for it. If God exists, and He is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving, than He should be able to stop evil, and should want to do so. However, since we all know that evil still exists, then either God doesn’t exist at all, or He is not all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving.
There are a number of ways to approach this argument, but before getting into those I think it’s important to make a few observations. Strangely enough, this argument is a double-edged sword, and actually cuts equally as hard against Atheism as it does Christianity. The reason for this is because Atheism cannot account for any sort of objective or absolute morality, as we discussed in the post on the Moral Argument. Christians do still have to deal with the argument within the context of our worldview, but from the worldview perspective of the Atheist, the best they can say is that there are certain things which happen that they do not find to be pleasant. Of course, such an argument doesn’t pack nearly as much punch.
This is an important point to press because if you have to borrow from an opposing worldview in order to make an argument against it, what you’re doing is having to presuppose (at least for the sake of argument) the truth of that worldview. In other words, you’re breathing God’s air in order to argue against His existence. Along those lines, I’ve found it helpful to ask some clarifying questions before launching into rebuttals. The reason for this is that words are very tricky, and people can mean completely different things while using the same words or phrases.
When I phrased the argument above, I did so deliberately. Notice that I said that God is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and loving. I did not say “all-loving (omnibenevolent)”, and I did so for a reason. The term omnibenevolent is often used in this argument, but it’s important to find out what they mean by that term. As we’ve already pointed out, the Atheist has to step into the Christian worldview in order to attempt to use our understanding of objective morality to argue against the existence of God. However, they will often smuggle in their own definition of love. This is not to say that everyone you encounter does this out of malicious intent, though some may. It could easily be that they take their definition for granted, and forget there are other definitions. This is why it’s always good to ask questions, and not merely to assume ill intent.
This definition is important to the discussion, because if by “all-loving” the person has a very secular definition of love, then they have a stronger argument, but also have a fallacious one. If you’re going to attempt to use a Christian system to disprove God, you must be consistent. A very common secular definition of love is largely equivalent to unconditional affirmation. In other words, the god which is being argued against is a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and really nice. One which does not have wrath, holiness, justice, or punishment for sin. Phrased this way, it’s easy to see that the god being argued against is not the God that Christians believe in, at all.
If you’re going to use our system, then you need to be consistent and use our definitions, too. The biblical understanding of the love of God is one which is consistent with all His attributes, including holiness, justice, and wrath. God’s love involves hatred of sin(Ps. 5:4-7), and the election of people (Hos. 11:1; Rom. 9:12-13; Eph. 1:4-5), as well as the fact that God disciplines those He loves (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19). As you can see, this definition of love is far deeper, and more complex than a merely secular understanding of what cosmic love must be like. If the argument is phrased in terms of the biblical understanding of God, and of love, it really starts to lose steam as an argument against the existence of God.
That said, there are still things which need to be addressed in this discussion, and we’ll cover those in the next week or two.